Congratulations to Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen on being awarded a two-year Rubicon Fellowship. The fellowship is a personal award provided by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research that is given to promising early-career postdoctoral scientific researchers. It was established to encourage talented students from Dutch universities to dedicate themselves to a career in postdoctoral research and provides sufficient funding to undertake postdoctoral studies to enhance the recipient’s knowledge, skills, and experience. We interviewed Dr van Harmelen to ask her about the direction and significance of her research under the fellowship.
Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen, who received her PhD in Psychology in December 2013 from Leiden University, has joined Professor Ian Goodyer‘s Developmental Lifecourse Research Group within the Department of Psychiatry and plans to undertake a further investigation of the cognitive and neurobiological consequences of childhood emotional maltreatment (CEM), the topic of her doctoral dissertation.
Dr van Harmelen elaborated that “when a child is often scolded or threatened by his parents (emotional abuse) and/or when a child is structurally persistently ignored or isolated by his parents (emotional neglect) we call this childhood emotional maltreatment. CEM is the most prevalent type of abuse, and is strongly associated with mental illness. During my PhD, I showed that adults who report CEM are markedly more likely to report mental illness and to show abnormalities in brain circuits responsible for understanding and controlling emotions. My research revealed altered brain systems not only in adults who reported CEM and mental illness but also in those who, despite reporting CEM, had never suffered from mental illness. Here at Cambridge and through my fellowship-funded research, I will undertake a more advanced study of CEM by examining in young adults the possible brain-based recovery mechanisms by which positive relationships during adolescence may overcome the negative effects of earlier CEM.”
Dr van Harmelen’s work is particular in that it aims to investigate resilience and recovery in young adults who have been exposed to maltreatment as children but subsequently experienced positive friendship in adolescence. She explained that “most research in this domain, including my own, has focused only on the negative effects or risk factors. In this study, I want to look at the other side of this coin: what types of interactions or circumstances can help, or partially protect, individuals from being adversely affected by CEM? Additionally, my research is exciting because the expertise in Cambridge allows me to use cutting edge neuroimaging techniques and analyses that will allow us to study the neuroanatomy in the detailed, exciting, and insightful ways.”
Working in the Developmental Lifecourse Research Group and being a part of the Clinical School will be especially instrumental for this research. The group has already hosted experts in computational modelling of risk and resilience factors in adolescent psychiatry and has conceived and carried out the ROOTS study, which maintains a large cohort of adolescents and aims to determine the relative contributions of genetic, physiological, psychological, and social variables to risk for psychopathology. This combination of expertise and access to unique cohort samples are likely to prove invaluable.
When asked about the likely impact of this research, Dr van Harmelen stated that “we know that in the field of physical and sexual abuse, better understanding and awareness has contributed to greatly improved identification by the social environment, increased social acceptance for those who have suffered from such forms of abuse, and better interventions for these people. This in turn has likely contributed to the steady decline in the incidence of these horrible forms of abuse. I hope that research by me and others into emotional maltreatment will have a similar effect. I hope my research will provide us with a better understanding of the impact of risk and resilience factors in adolescence on neurobiology, focusing on the possible protective effects of adolescent friendships. This may then be the subject of psychosocial education programs that discuss the effects of CEM and how to counter these effects. Furthermore, if we indeed find that friendships in adolescence are a protective factor, I hope that this will inspire schools to invest in peer-mediated ‘buddy’ programs between highly socially caring children and children with a history of CEM. Likewise, therapists treating individuals with CEM could focus (part of) their treatment on interpersonal skills training and provide ‘homework’ exercises that require social interaction. These interventions may have great potential to lead to a reduction in CEM related psychopathology.”
This research supported by the Rubicon Fellowship is set to officially begin in the spring of this year. Once again, congratulations to Anne-Laura van Harmelen and best of luck for what looks to be some fascinating and worthwhile research.